Closed meetings give citizens cause to worry

Published 5:00 am Monday, October 9, 2000

A recent decision by the Brookhaven Board of Aldermen to meet insecret regardless of case law saying they cannot, then challenginganyone who objects to take them to court, opens an interestingquestion on responsible government and public service.

Why should the public care if government entities operate undera cloud of secrecy? Why should they care if a government body ofelected officials goes behind closed doors to discuss things thataffect the tax dollars we send them?

We can think of several reasons — the first one being thespecial legislative session called this past summer to reverse asecretly-passed retirement perk for state legislators.

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It could have cost taxpayers roughly $60,000 for legislators tomeet to reverse the actions of a secret conference committeemeeting, but legislators wisely chose not to pay themselves fortheir two days of special session work. Had they not reversed thesecret action, the cost to taxpayers would have been close to $1million annually.

Another reason would be the current Ayers desegregationsettlement meetings. Those secret meetings are deciding the fate ofMississippi tax dollars for funding our state university system,but with no public input.

In Wesson this summer, the town board closed a meeting forpersonnel reasons to discuss the funding of a weather monitoringsystem. They never explained how equipment purchases related topersonnel.

Here in Brookhaven, we can think of the closed door meetingswhere city aldermen secretly voted themselves two pay raises withinthe first three years of the current administration. Those raiseshave put them among the highest paid city officials in Mississippi.Would they have been so generous had the public been aware of thediscussion?

Of course, there was the secret meeting back in June to abolishthe Brookhaven Airport Board. Interestingly enough two — andpossibly three — members of the five-man abolished board willserve on the new board. Not to question the airport board members’appointments, but what then was the city’s real purpose in takingover the operations of the airport?

While the city did try to be a bit more open with the 2001budget hearings in August, we do not remember hearing anydiscussion between aldermen about the spending of the city’s cashreserves. The 2001 budget spends $1.1 million of the reserve,leaving only $85,000 for next year. Did city fathers just missthis, or were those discussions also done in secret?

We have seen the city aldermen call secret meetings foreverything from pay raises to problems with a fire hydrant. Funnything is, other area public boards, such as the county supervisorsand school boards, have little problem with following the law andconducting their meetings in the open.

Should citizens be concerned? We think so, especially when thecity’s attitude is take us to court if you don’t like it.